INTERVIEW

Vashti Bunyan has never considered herself to be the folk musician that the rest of us have. She didn’t want to turn her back on music for 35 years and become a cult figure – it just turned out that way

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In a musical aeon strewn with reformed bands, with artists from the – and in their – 60s and 70s taking to stages and cashing pay cheques as frequently as they did thirty or forty years ago, the idea of an enigmatic artist coming back from an age-old, black-hole of mythical obscurity is no longer so much of a unique tale.  However, in the case of Vashti Bunyan there are components to her back-story still too irresistible to gloss over. Perhaps because so much of her tale is rooted in an intangible part of musical history, some of which has died, with other parts capturing a phase in music so infinitely different to the one we inhabit today.

Bunyan was an active songwriter in the mid-sixties, who was picked up by Andrew Loog Oldham (The Rolling Stones’ manager-come-impresario). He signed her to Decca Records for whom she would then record a Jagger/Richards penned single, ‘Some Things Just Stick in Your Mind’. A few more songs followed but then, frustrated, she decided to leave London and head for the Hebridean Islands, where a commune had been planned by fellow 1960s songwriter Donovan. She would take this journey with her partner, travelling via horse and cart, a surely antiquated method of transport even back then. It took them so long that Donovan had left when they arrived. On the road she continued to write songs, which would form her debut album, ‘Just Another Diamond Day’, released in 1970. Back in London, the album was produced by the now legendary Joe Boyd; Robert Kirby would perform string arrangements fresh from doing the same on his previous two projects, Nick Drake’s exquisite ‘Five Leaves Left’ and ‘Bryter Layter’. Members of both Fairport Convention and the Incredible String Band would also contribute to the album. At the time, nobody really gave it much attention and the album was deemed a failure. So devastated by this rejection, Bunyan turned her back on music, never even touching an instrument or listening to music again, retiring to the wilderness to raise her children on a remote farm.

An inquisitive Google search of her own name around the turn of the millennium led Bunyan to discover the cult – and greatly treasured – status of her debut album. It led to a reissue, and the modern-day reappraisal, in the context of bourgeoning artists such as Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom, finally gave ‘Just Another Diamond Day’ a home and an opportunity to be listened to and understood in a manner that it simply wasn’t thirty years earlier.

In 2005, Buyan would release a startling new album, ‘Lookaftering’; a bookend of a record that seemed intent on tying up the myth of her debut. It was littered with contributions from a new wave of songwriters and artists that were clearly in awe of Bunyan’s work (Banhart, Newsom, Adem, Adam Pierce and it was produced by Max Ritcher). Nine years later Bunyan has released another – very likely to be her last – album in the shape of ‘Heartleap’.

Now at sixty-nine years of age, Bunyan, in her home in Edinburgh, finds herself in a reflective mood, looking back on a fifty-year period since she started as a wide-eyed teenager with dreams of being a pop star.

“I can’t quite believe that I finished it… I do feel as though I’ve emerged from something,” she says of the album’s long creation period. With a nine-year gap between records, seven of them have been spent making this one. Of reaching a final, finishing point, she tells me: “It’s like leaping off a cliff edge, I think – you just say: ‘okay, that’s it.’ I don’t know how you know it’s finished.”

While her previous record was incredibly collaborative, ‘Heartleap’ was recorded and engineered largely by herself, some of which in the solitary confinement of her own home. Was this approach, I enquire, born out of dissatisfaction with the previous collaborative approach or simply a desire to approach things freshly?

“I know the press release gives the impression that I wasn’t happy with what went on before, but that is so not right. I tried to get it re-written as I thought it hinted at dissatisfaction. I was really worried about it and worried about upsetting Max [Ritcher] in any way, because he was fantastic and I could have never made it without him and I learnt so much from him and it was because I learnt so much from him that I was able to carry on and teach myself. The more I learnt about the process of recording, the more fascinated I became with it. After about three years I realised I had to do it for myself, it was time to stand on my own two feet… I felt [on ‘Lookaftering’] that they were looking after me and that to be really honest with myself I should try to do it for myself and see what happens. I had no idea if it was going to work or not but I had to try it and have a go at it.”

Still, Bunyan admits that working by herself is an embedded preference in her creative methods. “It’s a very solitary process,” she says. “I’m not very good at working with other people; I wish I were, but I just get very shy and very closed down.” She tells me that when she was put in the same room with Nick Drake, with the aim of collaborating, they would bring out this side in one another exponentially. “We were both too individual to actually work together.”

Since ‘Heartleap’’s announcement, the official line has been that this will most probably be Bunyan’s final record. She tells me: “When it was finished, Dave [from Fat Cat Records] came to the mastering studio and was listening to it and everybody was talking about it and how fantastic it was that it was complete.  Then he [Dave] started talking about the next one and I said, ‘I’m never doing this again.’ So he picked up on that and put it in the press release, too. So, people are asking me if this will be my last record and I say, ‘how can I really know? How can I be really sure?’ But I think it’s often the way when somebody has finished something, they think, where will I ever get that from again? It’s quite a strong and overwhelming feeling. When I finished the last song on the album, ‘Heartleap’, I thought, that’s the last song I’m ever going to write again, because that’s everything I wanted to say.”

There’s something of real beauty to be found in an artist coming to their own, natural conclusion, having their art dictate their decisions and next move instead of a manager, label or notion of a ‘career’ or money. “Well, I’m glad you think so,” she says. “It feels a little bit like I’ve got to the top of a hill. Making an album is a big thing – when I look at piles of CDs I think of all the agony that’s gone into each one. It’s a big thing to do. So for now it certainly feels like [this will be my last one].”

I note that knowing that you’ve called time on your musical career, and it marking fifty years since it ostensibly began, must cause a great deal of introspection and reflection. “Yes,” says Bunyan, “a great reflectiveness because it was like coming full circle in a way. The way I first started writing songs was just on my own in a room with a guitar with huge dreams of what I might do with these songs, and then of course it never happened and here I am at this end of everything and actually realising those dreams I had when I was very young and realising how lucky I am. I feel extraordinary that I’ve been able to do this and have had the good fortune to be able to do this. Certainly that the technology has allowed me to do this by myself in a room, not just with a guitar but with all kinds of sounds available to me that were in my head that I was able to get out – how lucky is that, really?! It does make me feel reflectively fortunate.”

This reflective approach has too changed Bunyan’s views of her early years and the ‘failure’ of her debut album. “I think ‘… Diamond Day’ to me was such a failure because nobody said anything about it back then, so all I could do was assume it was awful and so whenever I heard it – by mistake, if one of the children would put the tape on or something – I had to turn it off instantly. I couldn’t bear to hear it because it just meant failure and rejection to me, then after it came out again in 2000 and people started saying all the things that I would have longed for people to say back then about it – because back then it was just dismissed as nursery rhymes for children, it was lightweight and all these awful things – and to have it actually understood during these times allowed me to go back and actually listen and think, oh, actually those songs are quite alright, and I think it has changed my perception of my own songs.

“Looking back now, now that I’ve come back to it [‘… Diamond Day’] or at least after it came out again, I realised how much I’d missed it and what a huge thing I’d done by turning my back on it and that’s when I realised how terribly crushed I’d been by an un-acceptance by other musicians or other people who listened. That was such a bad feeling that I couldn’t listen to music for a long, long time and that was really hard on my children that they didn’t have much music in their early lives at all and I feel really bad about that now.”

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There’s a shyness in Bunyan that occasionally seeps through in our conversation and she still talks about coming to terms with confidence in her own songs and in her own performances, so much so that she couldn’t perform vocal takes for this record with other people in the room. “I experimented with that,” she says. “I tried recording a vocal when I knew there was someone else in the house or I knew there was somebody about to arrive or whatever and then tried it again when I knew I was on my own and the difference in expression, not just in confidence but in acuity of what I was doing, was very much, so I carried on.”  In fact, Bunyan’s own past and relationship to music has had a lingering effect on her relationship with her own voice. “Before I started up again, I couldn’t listen to my voice at all,” she remembers. “I couldn’t even listen to myself leaving a voicemail message. I just could not bear the sound of my own voice. It took me a while to understand it. I think I’m enjoying my voice more now, I’m not so shy of it.”

In 2006, the lead song from ‘Just Another Diamond Day’ became a hit after inclusion on a T-Mobile advert, but all of this just played into Bunyan’s initial plans of being a popular artist. “The thing with the T-Mobile advert, when I wrote the song ‘Diamond Day’ I didn’t want it to be some little obscure song that nobody would ever hear – even though that’s what it would turn out to be – so to have it taken up by a commercial to me felt absolutely wonderful because my thoughts when I was recording with Andrew Oldham was that I wanted to be commercial, I wanted to be in the charts, I wanted to be that person and everybody said to me, ‘oh, your songs are so un-commercial’, so to have one of those songs taken up as a commercial was just brilliant. I know that it upset some people, as they felt it was this precious song that went against the whole idea of the modern world and I was sorry that I upset people with that, but for me it was brilliant and it also enabled me to send my youngest off to college in America and things like that.”

The long period for ‘Heartleap’’s creation is worthwhile. Not only is it the clear manifestation of an artist allowing herself to grow, evolve and gain confidence at a natural and conducive pace, but as a finished product it is truly gorgeous. Bunyan’s vocals drop-back somewhat on this album; they are less defined and up-front and more ingrained into the misty layers of instrumentation and the glowing, entrancing atmospheres that so frequently cloak it. As a songwriter she is frequently projected as being a folk artist; a traditional purist of the old-school, still locked into the dewy hue of old-time compadre’s such as Fairport Convention and the Incredible String Band, and while structural and sonic similarities do occasionally prevail, Bunyan’s approach is the living antitheses of the purism and traditionalism found in such folk music.

With her first royalty cheque she bought a Mac, a keyboard and a music programme and openly gushes at the satisfaction she gets from the “fakery and trickery” she explores with making music on her computer, building music up with layers and splices. This treatment and mentality bears far more resemblance to the approach of an electronic musician than a folky. “I think I’m fascinated by the idea of replicating something that I can’t play,” she says.

I tell her that her approach is far more in the Grouper or Arthur Russell camp than it is in, say, the Linda Thompson one. “What you just said was music to my ears,” she beams. “I have never considered myself a folk musician, ever! I think because of the people who were on ‘… Diamond Day’ that Joe Boyd brought in, people who were very much considered folk people and today they are still very much in the Brit-Folk category, so that is where I was pushed as well. ‘… Diamond Day’ was a tiny part of my life and a tiny part of my musical life. I thought of myself as a pop singer when I started out when I was nineteen. Then I didn’t understand what was happening with ‘… Diamond Day’; I didn’t hear the recordings until a year later and then I realised that it was a very folky kind of treatment, which is one of the reasons why I left it behind, as I felt it didn’t represent me terribly well. Then in 2000 when it was re-released HMV insisted putting it in the folk section! Then when ‘Lookaftering’ came out it was also put in the folk category, and when I see myself described as ‘folk singer Vashti Bunyan’ I always get a little knot in my heart – that isn’t me, really. But the problem is, how do I describe myself? How do I describe the music? It’s so much easier to call it folk but I never ever have and don’t.”

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